KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Susan Haynes used to have panic attacks seven times a day.
Sometimes, she would fall out of her chair. Sometimes, she would stop breathing.
“I could just fall down, just collapse and look like I was having a seizure or stroke,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”
For years, Haynes has struggled with the effects of trauma from a divorce, childhood abuse and a death in the family. She has taken medication and tried therapy to manage her debilitating anxiety.
Last April, she tried something different.
Haynes started seeing a peer support specialist — a layperson diagnosed with a mental illness who counsels others going through the same challenges.
Like therapists, certified peer support specialists charge an hourly rate. But unlike a professional, they don’t have licenses or degrees in medicine, social work or psychology.
Instead, peers offer a more casual connection earned through experience. Proponents say it’s an opportunity for people to gain a sense of purpose — and modest income — by helping others.
It also offers a sense of community and social support that an overburdened mental health system can’t provide.
Haynes began seeing Sheri Hall, a Kansas City-based poet, about once a week. They connected through Poetry for Personal Power, a nonprofit group based in Kansas City, Kansas.
The two bonded over their shared Christian faith and their love of writing. Hall gave her advice on job interviews, reminded her to write notes when she had trouble remembering things and stopped her when she put herself down.
The approach is more personal than one therapists could provide.
“I walk side-by-side with my peer,” Hall said. “I’ve been there, and so I am going to link arms with you.”
Hall says she went through a “breakdown” when she was pregnant with her first child and working to support her family. She was diagnosed with anxiety and sought the help of a Christian therapist, but didn’t want to start taking medication.
She became a peer support specialist in Kansas and Missouri so she could help people in a way that doctors and therapists couldn’t. Hall says her relationship with Haynes is less formal and more mutual.
“She can give me insight because we’re peers,” Hall said. “She has wisdom, too. So she gets to feel useful in this relationship. It’s not lopsided.”
Training For Peer Support
In Kansas, peer support specialists must be certified through the Department for Aging and Disability Services. The agency redesigned its training program this summer, putting the first level online and holding in-person instruction for the second level.
The goal is to encourage self-sufficiency and beef up the resumes of people who didn’t think they could work again, said Carrie Billbe, who works for the agency’s Behavioral Health Services Commission.
“One of our goals in Kansas,” Billbe said, “is to create those job opportunities.”
The training teaches communication strategies and how to share stories of recovery from mental illness. It emphasizes using gentle language that doesn’t judge a patient’s actions or experiences.
It also encourages peer support specialists to meet clients in places where they feel comfortable — at a coffee shop or at home — rather than in a mental health center.
The strategy could fill some gaps in the state’s mental health system.
“Everybody has mental health and everybody has emotional distress,” said Corinna West, founder of the nonprofit Poetry for Personal Power. “So solving emotional distress can’t always be a clinical intervention.”
Mental health isn’t just about whether someone is in therapy or taking medication, West said. Peer support can address aspects of recovery that medicine doesn’t touch: relationships, work and living conditions.
“Does a person have a job? Do they have a life they want to live? Do they have housing? Do they have social connections?” West said.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Now, Haynes can’t remember the last time she had a panic attack. She’s writing a book about her experiences and training to be a school bus driver after four months of being unemployed.
She credits Hall with her progress.
“I’m out of the tunnel,” Haynes said. “I keep her with me.”
The experience inspired her to be trained as a peer specialist as well. She says her trauma will always be with her, but she’s learned to move past it.
“I wanted to help people,” she said. “You can have a life after traumatic things have happened to you.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org.
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